James Sallis on Walkability and the Fight Against Obesity

Apr 15, 2013 - 3:25 pm

Obesity is a big Central Texas health problem: A quarter of us are clinically obese. (For details, read a local 2012 Critical Health Indicators Report and our latest Community Health Assessment.) Walking daily can be a big part of the answer.  How can the design of our cityscape help Austinites walk more for good health?  James Sallis has insights.

Distinguished Professor in Family and Preventative Medicine
University of California, San Diego

How does the design of a city affect how healthy its population is?
Throughout our whole history, people have walked for transportation. We’ve deleted that. We’ve designed that feature out of the world for many, many people and we now have the evidence that our planning and community design decisions and our transportation decisions are reducing activity and contributing to chronic diseases.

Photo of James Sallis, Ph.D.What does the research show?
We find, over and over again, that people are much more active in walkable cities. Many of those studies show that people in more walkable cities are less likely to be obese. We’ve done studies that show this across all age groups. We’ve done a study in 11 countries showing the same thing internationally. So the evidence is really adding up.

Are some cities better at others at being walkable?
Every older city is walkable, period. If they were built before cars they had to be. So we know how to make walkable cities that are fantastic and beautiful.

How does this translate into healthier behavior?
The brain is not our friend when it comes to physical activity. We are kind of programmed for slothfulness. As we age, some of the neurons that connect movement centers and reward centers die off so we lose our ability to get pleasure from activity. That’s why we need spaces that invite people to be active. We need to feed the pleasure centers of the brain through our designs.

What should cities be doing differently?
First, start building mixed-use places again. Don’t build residential areas that are separate from commercial areas, build communities so that the places where people want to go are in walking distance. Mixed use is the key. And in transportation we’ve got to prioritize pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit, because people who use those for active transportation are healthier.

Isn’t it more costly to build this way?
The way we’re building cities now has huge consequence for health, for health care, and thus for our economies. It may be more costly to build more walkable areas, more sidewalks and plant more trees, but there are economic benefits too. Property values tend to be higher and infrastructure costs tend to be lower when there is less sprawl.

Is this something only big cities can afford to care about?
A lot of small cities are making these changes too. They’re putting in bike lanes and redeveloping their downtowns to be more walkable, not for health reasons but for economic development. People like walkable places, sidewalk cafés and so on. And these places are economically attractive because people associate them with being dynamic and creative.

About James Sallis: A behavioral psychologist focused on the obesity epidemic, Sallis investigates how the design of cities and public spaces influences people’s physical activity and health. Sallis also serves as Program Director for Active Living Research. The nonprofit, which has funded over 200 projects, supports and shares hard data that can guide urban planners and policy makers in creating active communities that can help prevent childhood obesity – especially among low-income children of color.

Excerpted from:

How urban design affects our health, The Globe and Mail, Jan. 21 2013

Active Living Research Reports:

Transforming Land Use Regulations to Create Livable Communities that Support Physical Activity in Everyday Life

Land Use Innovation: Experiences in the Adoption of Land Use Policies to Promote Active Living

The Role of Health and Physical Activity in the Adoption of Innovative Land Use Policy: Findings from Surveys of Local Governments